Documentary looks at deadly dangers posed by mosquitoes

A still from Mosquito shows an Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry multiple diseases.
A still from Mosquito shows an Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry multiple diseases.PHOTO: COURTESY OF DISCOVERY

WASHINGTON•Most likely, a great white shark is not going to kill you. Neither is a serial killer, terrorist, grizzly bear or a lot of other nightmare-inducing predators.

What should be keeping you up at night is much smaller and a lot more common. The new Discovery documentary Mosquito, which airs in the United States tomorrow, provides plenty of reasons why you should be alarmed by the faintest buzzing sounds.

"Everything is in place for the perfect storm of disease," narrator Jeremy Renner says in the film. "And yet almost no one sees the dark clouds gathering."

Are you scared yet? You should be.

The tiny blood-suckers, often written off as pesky nuisances, are the deadliest creatures in the world, killing roughly 750,000 people annually.

The movie shows the human side of the worldwide problem, with the story of a Brazilian mother whose son has microcephaly after she contracted Zika while pregnant; an African boy suffering from malaria; a New York woman who is permanently disabled after a bout of West Nile; and a husband and wife in Florida who have quarantined themselves in their house, in fear of Zika, after she became pregnant.

These awful stories may become more common for a number of reasons, one of which is globalisation.

As Discovery Channel group president Rich Ross put it during a recent telephone conversation, mosquitoes "have unrestricted air travel and they don't have to pay for luggage. They fly for free".

The insects - most of which are not deadly - can be stowaways on commercial flights or end up alongside exports leaving Africa. They are a by-product of international trade and the uptick in personal and professional air travel and they do not need much to survive.

As the movie explains, it took three centuries for dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria to make their way from Africa to the Americas and only an additional 16 years for three other mosquito-borne illnesses - West Nile, Zika and chikungunya - to traverse the globe.

"In rich countries, there's almost a naivete about these things," says billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates in the film.

"People are surprised if you have an infectious disease coming in to an area."

Globally, malaria is not a disease of the past - it still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, mostly children. And new illnesses can spread quickly.

Zika was barely on the radar when Canadian director Su Rynard began working on the movie less than 11/2 years ago.

"It was kind of a footnote - nobody really knew about it and, in the course of this last year, while making the film, it went from something people had never heard of to a crisis according to the World Health Organisation," said Rynard, who also made The Messenger (2015), a documentary about the way humans are altering the natural world.

"That speaks to the speed of change and it speaks to the future. I think that's not a one-off - this is how things are going to go."

Part of that speed is due to changing temperatures. Climate change is about more than a polar bear on an ice floe, she added.

It is also about diseases ending up in places they have never been before.

Deadly mosquitoes used to live only around the Equator, but as temperatures rise around the globe, the insects are able to survive farther north than they ever could.

"Humans are driving many species to extinction, but we're making the world a better place for the mosquito, so mosquitoes are actually on the rise," Rynard said.

"The way we live is really creating a problem for ourselves."

US President Donald Trump's proposed budget will take money away from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health, among other scientific agencies, and former CDC director Tom Frieden has been critical of the potential cuts.

"If the President's budget goes through, it would endanger the lives of Americans," he said before a recent screening of Mosquito, in which he appears. "We would basically have to pull back from the front lines of terrible organisms that we're helping to keep in check."

He believes movies and pop culture can help people comprehend the magnitude of the danger.

For example, after former US president George W. Bush read John Barry's historical book The Great Influenza, about the deadly 1918 flu outbreak, he made disease preparedness a priority.

And movies such as Contagion (2011) give some sense of the terrifying repercussions of a pandemic, even if it was "a little too optimistic about how quickly we'd get a vaccine out there", Dr Frieden said.

"The real point is that public health is about public safety," he said.

He understands why people might get lackadaisical about mosquitoes and their potential to harm on a massive scale. For one thing, they are tiny and they are everywhere.

It seems hopeless. It is also difficult to do anything about the problem, which necessitates a multi- pronged approach that would entail work on a local level as well as the cooperation of countries around the globe.

The key is to remember that, even though you can barely see mosquitoes, the threat is still there.

"We live in this interconnected world and a disease anywhere is a disease everywhere," Rynard said. "There're no borders or walls we can put up to protect ourselves from disease."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'Documentary looks at deadly dangers posed by mosquitoes'. Print Edition | Subscribe